I wound through the hills and narrow curves until the familiar blue farm house came into view. Though it had been two years since I’d been here, it was almost as though I’d never left. Within moments, Willie Shelton opened the door with his distinctive smile welcoming me inside.
Well into his nineties, Mr. Shelton is a decorated World War II veteran. He was wounded in battle three times. Yet, today he is a mild mannered man who just farms his land and refuses to wear his medals of a distant war on his chest as he just goes on living life.
I met Willie while on the Road to Freedom Bicycle Tour 2013. He’d opened his home to me—a total stranger—and fed me with vegetables right out of his garden. He is humble but there is an unmistakable inner strength that guided him through Europe as an Army infantryman during the height of the big war.
I sat glued to Mr. Shelton on Saturday as he told how he and one other soldier captured fifteen German soldiers and while escorting them to a prison camp, they captured more and more soldiers. By the time the two soldiers reached the prison camp, they had compelled over seventy Germans to lay down their guns and march to the American POW camp.
When he was shot, Mr. Shelton survived by playing dead when the Germans came through, even when they poked him with bayonets to make sure he was lifeless. Once he survived attack by diving into a pile of manure.
As with most World War II veterans I’ve met, Mr. Shelton was not boastful about his experience. He just went. And he fought. Then he came home and lived his life to his fullest in the hills of Tennessee. He received a purple heart and two clusters for his wounds. Though he never ascended above the rank of Private First Class, he did the work of many while on the battlefield in France, Germany, Africa, Italy and Austria.
As I tried desperately to understand what it was like for him to be on another continent fighting for freedom, I also wondered what type of country I’d live in today if it hadn’t been for Willie Shelton. He willingly fought for my freedom over a decade before I was born. I don’t live in tyranny. I am not abused or mistreated, all because a quiet man from Tennessee and thousands just like him went across the ocean, took up arms and defended the most precious gift America as given me—freedom!
It’s not free. Mr. Shelton paid a handsome wage to secure my freedom. He has the scars to prove it. I am honored to know such a man. Today he lives his life in peace in the gentle rolling hills of Tennessee. I know there is nothing I can do to repay him for what he’s done for me. Even if I could, he would never allow it. That’s who he is. He is a patriot. A soldier. A hero.
Thank you Willie Shelton for allowing me to spend time with you once again. Thank you for your sacrifice so I can live in the greatest nation on earth. Because of you, the Heartbeat of America remains alive and well!